Tag Archives: Art

Berlin Field Studies: Reflections on Teaching a Course On-Site

Leading a discussion at the Karl Liebknecht Memorial.

Leading a discussion at the Karl Liebknecht Memorial.

This summer I had the opportunity to teach one of the University of Maryland’s field studies courses, entitled “Berlin: Its History and its Art.” Teaching in Europe I have taken students on plenty of cultural excursions, but this was the first time in my career that I had had the opportunity to organize an entire course on location. The experience was a very positive one, not in the least because I was fortunate to work with students who brought an incredible amount of energy and intellectual curiosity to the class. At the same time, a course of this kind poses a number of challenges, both of a logistical and of a pedagogical kind. I lived in Berlin for two years, and so it is a place that I am very familiar with, the town’s well-deserved reputation for constant transformation notwithstanding. Teaching a course in and on the city, however, meant approaching the place from a fresh perspective, and I will reflect on all of that here.

Designing the Course

Course description and learning objectives were set, as “Berlin: Its History and its Art” were part of the program’s stable of field study courses, but the concept and the syllabus were up to me. The course had to be more than a glorified guided tour, and certainly not a pretext for soaking up the aura of the city, rather, it had to be as intellectually challenging as any classroom-based seminar. And because of the course title, we had a dual mandate: the class was both a course in history and art history. At the same time, I wanted to critically interrogate course title, that there was such a thing as “Berlin’s art,” given that some of the most spectacular art in Berlin is not from Berlin at all. The bust of Nefertiti, which we saw, is perhaps the most celebrated instance of a work of art that reflects a problematic history, but we are confronted with similar questions in regards to the Pergamonmuseum, the Ethnological Museum (now in the middle of relocating to the Humboldt-Forum), and much else in the State Museums.

To bring both sides together, I built the class around the theoretical question of how a city’s history and identity is expressed or, as is more often the case, constructed through its art, architecture, and public spaces, which I then broke down into daily themes: “The Architecture of Absolutism” for our Potsdam excursion, or “Colonial Legacies and the Berlin State Museums” for our visit to the Ethnological Museum and the Museum Island.

I prepared some readings on Berlin history for the students to cover ahead of time. The week before the meeting in Berlin was designated for reading. In order to give them the time to dive into a specific period in more depth, I asked each student to take responsibility for a certain period and report on the key developments and their significance for the history of the city.

In order to further ensure that I was not the only person with the content knowledge, I asked each student to prepare an on-site presentation for key structures and places. Public speaking is not everybody’s favorite thing, but the stakes were low and the students had a good esprit de corps, and I was quite hearted to see how supportive they were of each other.

Berlin as a Classroom

In addition to the historical readings, I found a few useful online resources that provided for the students a basic crash course in art history and criticism. A shoutout here especially to the incredibly useful smarthistory.org. We began our first class practicing art criticism with a few artistic depictions of Berlin from Eduard Gaertner’s more realist painting of Unter den Linden to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Berlin street scenes. Including the Kirchner was also an opportunity to rehearse the development of the historical avant garde. Doing so was a chance for me to clear the air: the Hamburger Bahnhof was on the agenda, and I know that expressionist, abstract, or non-representative art can divide a room, and I wanted the students to approach the works with at least an understanding of their art historical contexts.

The biggest challenge were the variables involved in being in any city, especially one like Berlin. Some of my information was out of date; I realized too late, for instance, that you couldn’t just show up and be let in to the top of the Reichstag like you could in the past. Unfortunately for a course called “Berlin: Its History and its Art,” the museums are also undergoing a major phase of moving and renovation (as they have since the 1990s). The Neue Nationalgalerie is closed until 2019, and all I knew of what was on display was that a few things were in the Hamburger Bahnhof. Regrettably, I had no opportunity to preview the collections beforehand, so when we got to the Hamburger Bahnhof, I had the students look around a couple of galleries so that I could run through and see what was on display, then reconvene. The specific works I had wanted them to see were not out, instead they had an exhibition on the Degenerate Art exhibition. So I made up a lesson on the Degenerate Art exhibition on the spot.

The Upshot

I left Berlin satisfied with how things had gone down. Reading the papers two weeks later, I was pleased to see that the students were actively incorporating the methods for analyzing art and architecture that we had practiced in our morning seminars and on-site over the course of the week, and generating numerous original insights. I was delighted to read extraordinarily creative essays that expanded on the course’s original concept to think about various pieces of street art that the students had spotted, thorny issues of memory and memorials (an issue near and dear to the hearts of my military-affiliated students), as well as squatter culture, a topic students were surely moved to consider given that our hotel was located up the street from one of Berlin’s remaining squatter settlements.

The reactions of the students to various places and works that we encountered meant led to plenty of surprises and teaching moments for me. This is, of course, always the case when one teaches material for the first time, but being on-site introduced a wider range of variables into the mix. Many of them only grew to love the city over the course of the week, as some were genuinely surprised by the German capital’s grittiness. Having already been thoroughly sold on Berlin before I ever arrived there, if anything I went through a reverse process of learning to see the city and its culture with a more critical eye than I did at the beginning of my first exchange year. I was especially charmed by the way the students reacted to the art museums. Their excitement over seeing an original Picasso took me back to when I was eighteen years old and stood rapturously before the canonical works of art in the National Gallery in London or the Louvre.

A few final points on what worked, and what I intend to incorporate next time.

  • Use of maps. In spite of my students’ joke that they were my ducklings, it was important to me to be sure that I spent ample time orienting them on where they had been and what they had done. I frequently stopped before city maps in the mass transit system to point to where we had been and where we were going. The first seminar also included a detailed study of the city map and a discussion of how to use the mass transit system.
  • Cultural scaffolding. There were a few moments of cross-cultural misunderstanding that I will be sure to prep the students on next time. How to tip in Germany was something students were unsure about, for instance. Some students are also unaware of the taboo (and more generally the laws regarding) photographing interesting people on the street. One student had a mildly embarrassing encounter over photography, which they resolved peacefully and with grace, much to their credit.
  • Social media. My students took the initiative to correspond over Facebook. While my social media presence is curated with students in mind, I still believe in maintaining digital boundaries, especially online. In this case students organized themselves. Some expressed the wish that I had taken this on in order to facilitate travel arrangements, a thought that admittedly had not occurred to me. Whether I would want to bend my practice and facilitate organization over Facebook is a matter I will have to consider. Brent Foster’s essay on Chronicle Vitae this week gets at the possibilities and pitfalls of venturing into that territory with my field study groups.

Photos used with permission.

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Leading my students down the Straße des 17. Juni.

Teaching Storm’s “The Rider on the White Horse”

41siL+8ITpL In my German culture survey course I recently had the opportunity to teach a unit on Theodor Storm’s novella The Rider on the White Horse. My motivation for including this unit was to give the students the opportunity to explore the relation between the text as an artistic artifact and its historical context. This is important work for students in general, but especially for the students who are drawn into this particular survey course. The students at my current institution are all affiliated in one way or another with the American military community here in Germany. They are motivated by a desire to become better acquainted with their host country, and many arrive with intellectual commitments leaning more towards the political history component of the course. Since the course is more cultural history, what is at stake in looking at cultural documents (literature, films, works of art, all of which we cover) is to work through with the students the historical and political stakes of aesthetic objects.

Theodor Storm’s The Rider on the White Horse (Der Schimmelreiter in German) is a very handy text for discussing the relation between the seemingly abstract (say, realism as epistemology) and the text’s “concrete” material historical context. The story is a frame narrative about the construction of a dike in Friesland, the main character, Hauke Haien, is an autodidact in geometry who overcomes the barriers imposed by a quasi-feudalistic order to realize the Promethean project of wresting arable land out of the sea. The novella is also a ghost story, as the project claims Haien’s life and he haunts the dike as a kind of revenant.

I paired the novella with excerpts from David Blackbourn’s The Conquest of Nature, an environmental history of hydrological engineering in Germany. Blackbourn’s thesis is that projects like dam building, river straightening, etc. were a crucial condition for the process of state formation in Germany from the eighteenth century to the present. Putting the novel within the context of environmental history not only speaks to student interest, but opens up possibilities for making the theoretical issues that undergird the story clear to students encountering those concepts for the first time. The relegation of the fantastic to nature and the sea, which Hauke seeks to overcome through his engineering prowess, for instance, opens up the possibility for a Frankfurt school reading of the domination of nature. The building of the dike is also connected to social transformations: whereas before Hauke the position of Dikemaster seemed to be concerned primarily with the preservation of the available land, Hauke Haien’s dike turns out to be a good investment, producing surplus value to those members of the community who invest capital in his undertaking. The week prior to reading Storm, we had didacticized The Communist Manifesto in class. While the unit on Marx was connected to the political constellations of the pre-March period, it provided a useful framework for understanding how environmental transformation was connected to the shifting class dynamics of the novella.

The politics of the project within the novella are also useful fodder for discussion. In the story, opposition to the dike comes from community members who are reluctant to have to pay additional taxes in order to support the dike. Obviously the question of taxation in order to pay for infrastructure is a familiar problem to students; I like to refer it back to Blackbourn’s basic thesis of the connection between environmental transformation and the state.

The Rider on the White Horse is also valuable from a medial standpoint. The conceit of the frame narrative is that the story is contained within the pages of a nineteenth century family journal. The medial context is also a key element to the novella’s claim to reality, as the family journal culture of the late nineteenth century had its own strategies for creating a kind of reality effect, strategies based on the innovations of print technology that made a mass media possible in the first place. Of course these were also the journals in which texts like Storm’s first appeared. The Rider on the White Horse was printed in the journal Deutsche Rundschau in 1888. The fact that such journals have been digitized means that students can easily get a better picture of the context in which the novella’s first readers would have originally encountered the story. I could have brought in Deutsche Rundschau, but instead I showed the students an edition of the journal Über Land und Meer, which is more visually interesting and makes for a better case study in medial realism.

A final word on translation: the text has been translated variously as The Rider on the White Horse and The Dikemaster. I use James Wright’s translation, which has been reprinted in the New York Review of Books classics series. Unfortunately there’s no way to render the low German dialect that Storm transcribes in the novella into English. The language politics comes through in other ways, but less so, and for the purposes of my course that’s too bad, as that would be another avenue of exploration in connecting the work of art to the more generalized interests that bring the students into the class. But this version beautifully captures both the interesting pacing of the novella and Storm’s marvelous descriptions of the sea, which has a presence in the story familiar to any fan of Moby-Dick.

Deep Time and the Work of Art

800px-Elephant_Butte_exit_rapelThere’s a moment in Adalbert Stifter’s novel Indian Summer (Der Nachsommer, 1857) when the protagonist Heinrich Drendorf wanders through a valley and comes to a lake. Pausing at the lake, he spends several pages contemplating the geological forces that created the environment he is currently moving through (the length is typical for a novel that Hebbel famously mocked for the fact that everything is meticulously observed). Drendorf’s line of thought brings him to how his own things are themselves a product of deep time.

Then I thought of my marble – how remarkable marble is! Where did the animals go whose traces we think we see in these formations? When did the giant snails disappear whose memory has been handed down to us here? A memory such as this goes back into the mists of time, is measured by no one, is perhaps unseen by anyone, yet lasts longer than the fame of any  mortal. (191).

These reflections on the work of art eventually turn to reflections on narrative.

If any history [Geschichte] is worth pondering, worth investigating, it is the history of the Earth, the most promising, the most stimulating history there is, a history where man is only an interpolation, who knows how small a one, and can be superseded by other histories of perhaps higher beings. The Earth itself preserves the sources of this history in its innermost parts just as in a room for records, sources inscribed in perhaps millions of documents; it is only a matter of our learning to read and not falsify them by eagerness or obstinacy. Who will one day have this history clearly before his eyes? Will ever such a  time come, or will only He know it completely Who has known it for all Eternity?

What we have here is something like the concept of the Book of Nature, in which all of history is inscribed onto the planet, and can be read like an archive by one who has the right perspective. Reading that archive means achieving a sense of what is really “great” and what is really “small,” which is different from what presents itself to us as “great” and “small” (a distinction that determines Stifter’s realist agenda, as he explains in the preface to the novella cycle Multi-Colored Stones (Bunte Steine)). Stifter seems to suggest that reaching this state is a matter of evolution – biological or otherwise – although it’s tempting to imagine that the vagueness of “higher beings” holds open the possibility of the Earth having an extraterrestrial readership. For the moment, only God is the observer for whom the planet is in any way legible.

It would seem that Drendorf is arriving at a very ecocentric way of looking at the work of art. Geschichte means both “history” and “stories,” as narratives they culminate in a story of the Earth covering both deep past and deep future. In the case of the sculpture, the form given to the marble in the workshop would appear to be of diminished significance relative to the history of its material. Whatever it depicts, the marble is the product of eons of geological processes and was imprinted by species that came and went long before the one that turned the block of stone into an artwork.

The critic Georg Lukács memorably dubbed Stifter the “classical author of German reactionary politics” for his detailed descriptions and the anti-revolutionary agenda that spawned them. But his descriptiveness can and has been read as demonstrating a singular concern for the environment of the sort that one finds in American nature writing. Does this make Stifter an “ecocentric” author? By now it should be clear that I don’t think so, and I’ll explain why in my next post.

 

Stifter, Adalbert. Indian Summer. Trans. Wendell Frye. Bern: Peter Lang, 1999. Print.

Photo Credit: Elephant Butte, Arches National Park. Courtesy of Michael Grindstaff. Creative Commons license.

Disneyland Dream: Zeitraum – Zeittraum

Looking over the New York Times this weekend I was alterted to a very interesting video by Frank Rich in his editorial “Who Killed the Disneyland Dream?” One learns interesting things from Rich’s articles now and again, but unfortunately like most of the other New York Times columnists, his articles are lack are rarely insightful or profound.  So it was not surprising that he gave a rather impoverished reading of the film he used as his jumping-off point, the small amateur film Disneyland Dream.  It’s a somewhat longish film, but the first ten minutes or so give all the background to the trip, and then the actual visit to Disneyland begins around minute 20.

This film was made in 1995 with footage shot in 1956, a year after Disneyland opened.  The story is that in 1956, the Barstow family entered a competition offered by 3M on who could basically create the best advertisement for their brand of Scoth tape.  One of the children won with a poster that read “I like Scotch brand cellophane tape because when some things tear then I can just use it” ( a ringing endorsement!).  The family won a trip from their home in suburban Conneticut out to California, where they visited Los Angeles, Catalina, and, of course, Disneyland itself.  This film made it into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2008, and it is definitely worth a watch.

I like this film for a number of reasons.  While it is, on the one hand, just some film from a family most of us never met, it is a rather interesting one.  First off is the way that the nostalgia functions both in the film and in the film’s subject, Disneyland.  The narrator explains events, many of them clearly stages, almost forty years after the fact carefully explaining how it was back then.  On the surface there is what, to some audiences, may appear to be a sort of pleasant innocence, when neighbors were friends, when the willingness to work hard seemed to guarantee a person a certain standard of living, and when corporations such as 3M and Disneyland appeared benevolent.  Of course this picture leaves a lot of things out (immigrants, minorities, non-nuclear families, political undesirables, etc).  The scenes in the neighborhood make this painfully clear.

Secondly there is Disneyland itself.  One of the most interesting things for friends and family of mine who have seen this film is Disneyland as it was shortly after it opened.  Of course much has changed and been redeveloped in the following decades, so the film captures a park that has been lost to its devoted fanbase, and which most of us never knew anyway (the website Yesterland is dedicated to these fans, and this nostalgia for Disneyland as it used to be).  This then leads us to the rings of nostalgia that Disneyland builds around itself.  If we view them in chronological order, I suppose the first ring of nostalgia would be Main Street, USA, which offers a verklärte representation of an American small town at the end of the 19th century (I used to joke that it was the “saubere Königreich.”  Say it out loud and think about it, German speakers.  It really is punny).  Then there is the way that the Disney Corporation mythologizes its own origins, and the way that Walt Disney himself is elevated to the status of some sort of kid friendly Prometheus.  Just think of the statue of Disney and Mickey Mouse at the center of the Disneyland park in Anaheim.  Then there is the marketing, most evident, perhaps, in the periodic celebrations of the park’s founding.  I think Yesterland.com and Disneyland Dream also represent another ring of nostalgia.  It is interesting to hear the opposition that comes when Disneyland decides to make alterations, especially to its “classic” rides.  I remember this very clearly when Disneyland tried to remove the sexual innuendo from “Pirates of the Carribbean,” and I confess that on my last visit, in 2006, even I was unhappy when a Johnny Depp automaton was added to that same ride.  Really, isn’t that strange?  Why should anybody really care?

This nostalgia in general is all very strange.  How is it that we came to think of a corporate run theme park as a historical artifact that we would think of in the same way as a medieval cathedral?  Maybe Disneyland Dream offers us a clue.  Isn’t it right there in the title?  It’s a dream of what the nation, of what our system in general should bring: order, cleanliness, pleasure.  As the narrator tells us, it offers us a vision of what was. Now the period in which it was built, the 1950’s, has been subjected to similar romantic idealization.  Just listen to politicians talk about the 1950’s.  This is not a new phenomenon, as others have noticed.  There is a long tradition of selecting some past period as the temporal locus of goodness, virtue, etc.  What we get from the different levels of temporality in Disneyland Dream (1956 and 1995) is Disneyland as a representation of a better time (late 19th century America) and as in its essence an artifact from a better time (the 1950’s).

It’s this dream of what capitalism could be that Frank Rich seizes upon in his article, but this alone is an impoverished understanding of the film, in my view, because it misses yet another level of meaning one can find in the film.  There is something unsettling in the way that the entire community so completely embraces the fantasy.  The family buys a bunch of tape and creates free ads for the corporation.  The arrival of a “representative” of the corporation is hailed as a major event, as if a visit from a 3M employee were akin to a visit from the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES!  The entire neighborhood is somehow emotionally vested in this family’s fortune.  And, of course, for having created the free advertisement, they are able to go visit a corproate fantasy land all expenses paid!  This is a big thrill, and yet, the exaggerated way in which the narrator, the family, and the community reacts (see, for instance, the way that the whole family falls over in an artificial way) casts all of this in an extremely ironic light.  There is something overly performative in the behavior of everybody on screen.  Sure, Mr. Barstow was amusing himself by making a film of the event, and having his family act in this way, but within the logic of the film their extreme performativity alienates the viewer from the story unfolding and forces us to consider the film far more critically.

On a final note, it strikes me as interesting and, actually, wonderful that that they travelled all the way across the country to gaze mostly upon simulacra (movie sets, Disneyland itself, and Southern California’s phantasmagorical (ex/sub)urban developments). Of course, if that’s the kind of thing you’re in to, Southern California is the ideal place to be.

ON EDIT:  Speaking of the way the park in Anaheim is marketed, I wonder if the layer of history and nostalgia wrapped around Disneyland was a shift that could be linked to the park’s reproducing itself in Orlando, Paris, Tokyo, etc.?

SECOND EDIT:  It is also worth noting that, in addition to the simulacra of Southern California, the Barstow family saw a lot of fortifications of different kinds, or places that, by nature or by design, serve to keep people out.  There were the homes of the wealthy and movie stars, the castle set and the castle at Disneyland (both hollow representations of fortifications, a combination of both), Catalina Island, and, of course, the Los Angeles highway system.  Roads and highways are a classic technology of separation, and it is interesting that being on them inspires both wonder and fear in the narrator.  Here we might bear in mind the etymological connections of “boulevard” to French bouleverser, boulevard, German Bollwerk, English bulwark.

Destino auf Blu-Ray

Einige Jahren nachdem Disney das Projekt aus dem Archiv herausgeholt und vollendet hatte erscheint nun der Kurzfilm Destino auf Blu-Ray! Wer kein Geld ausgeben möchte oder keinen Blu-Ray-Spieler besitzt, findet einige Raubkopien auf Youtube, allerdings muss man suchen, bis man die Version mit dem Originalton findet, und dann werden sie nach ein paar Tage geflissentlich entfernt (deshalb kein Link).

Walt Disney und Salvador Dali haben das Projekt 1946 unternommen.  Er wurde als Teil eines “Mischfilmes” geplant, der allerdings nie ins Kino kam, weil die Gattung bis dann aus der Mode (!) war.  2003 hat Disney den Film nach den noch bestehenden Skizzen vollenden lassen.  Der Film ist eine bemerkenswerte Mischung der beiden Stile, dazu kommt noch der digitale Zeichentrick, der die Filme des Disney-Studios in den letzten anderthalb Jahrzehnts geprägt hat.

Es hat eine Weile gedauert, bis ich mich mit meiner eigenen Disney-Erziehung abfinden konnte.  Dieses Filmchen hilft einem dabei.

Kostenlose Donnerstags in den staatlichen Museen zu Berlin

Die momentan herrschende Sparpolitik geht leider voran.  Erst vor kurzem habe ich erfahren, dass kostenloser Eintritt Donnerstag Abends in die staatlichen Museen zu Berlin seit über einem Monat Geschichte ist.  Das ist ja nicht nur ein bedauerliches Zeichen anhaltender finanzieller Schwierigkeiten sowie ein Verlust für alle Berliner, sondern auch ein Hinweis auf die Gefahren kultureller und geisteswissenschaftlicher Einrichtungen in den Ländern, wo Sparen hoch auf der Tagesordnung steht.  Es hat sich angeblich herausgestellt, dass Touristen, “die als leistungsfähigeres Publikum geltend dürfen” zunehmend das Angebot nutzten.

Die guten Nachrichten sind, dass jetzt Jugendliche bis zum vollendeten 18. Lebensjahr jeden Tag kostenlosen Eintritt gewährt wird.  Uns alten armen Kunstfreunde hilft das zwar nicht viel.  Für mich persönlich ist das ja bedauerlich, denn als ich in Berlin lebte war es für mich eine Art Tradition, Donnerstag Abends in den Museen zu verbringen.  Ich bin oft dahingegangen, manchmal bloß für eine Stunde oder zwei, um meine Lieblingsstücke oder interessante Artefakten zu betrachten.  Jahreskarten sind glücklicherweise nicht so teuer, der Preis einer solchen für Daueraustellungen beträgt nur 40 Euro, und wenn ich wieder in Berlin bin, werde ich mir wohl eine besorgen, dann könnte ich jederzeit ins Museum gehen.  Aber es kommt eigentlich nicht darauf an, was ich mir selber leisten kann.  Es kommt darauf an, dass der staatliche Kulturbesitz allen zugänglich ist.  Einige kostenlose Stunden sind wirklich nicht zu viel gefragt, und somit muss Kultur nicht unbedint nur denjenigen offen stehen, die das Geld hergeben kann.  Schade ist es auch, dass nur an das Touristengeld wird hier gedacht, als stellten die kostenlosen Abends eine Geschäftsgelegenheit dar, die man noch nicht gezapft hätte.  Eben das ist das Besorgniserregende an die Änderungen der Eintrittspreiseregelungen.